Review: Terrors of the mind grip you tightly in “Phantasmagoria VIII: The Chains of Fire”

Phantasmagoria VIII

“Phantasmagoria VIII: The Chains of Fire” makes effect use of some classic tales of madness.


ORLANDO – Classic horror literature, in the minds of many, probably means monsters – Bram Stoker giving us the bloody-sucking terror of his vampire Dracula, or Mary Shelley creating the lumbering hulk made of fresh corpses that becomes “Frankenstein.”

Still, not all writers of long-distant eras felt they needed to invent hideous creatures of the night to scare their readers.

One of the great pleasures of watching the continuing series known as “Phantasmagoria” is their exploration of classic horror literature – tales that this talented cast recreates for their Orlando audience, often with bone-chillingly effective scares.

And now with the eighth installment of the series by actor, director and playwright John DiDonna, “Phantasmagoria VIII: The Chains of Fire,” we have reminders that some of those writers of earlier centuries saw no need for monsters to be lurking in the shadows outside. Our own minds could be much scarier to confront.

Here are two examples: how much fear and anxiety can you generate from …. Teeth and wallpaper?

Quite a bit, you might be surprised to learn.

“Phantasmagoria VIII: The Chains of Fire,” which opened this weekend at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center, features the group of performers who recreate tales of terror, and one of the most enjoyable episodes deals with a rather unique horror: a dental fetish.

That comes in the recreation of “Berenice,” an exceptionally chilling – and gruesome – short horror story by the master, Edgar Allan Poe, that dates back to 1835. It tells the tale of a man named Egaeus who is preparing to marry his cousin Berenice. But she’s suffering from an illness and starts to deteriorate – except for her teeth, which stay exceptionally healthy. So much so, that Egaeus becomes obsessed with her teeth. The situation gets particularly ghastly and grim when it appears that her illness has claimed poor Berenice, and she gets buried. Too bad Egaeus continues to obsess about her nice teeth …

The Phantasmagoria troop, and DiDonna in particular, really soar in this one, and you’ll feel suitably unnerved by its squirmy shocker ending.

But they also do an exceptional job with another tale of madness and obsession, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” an 1892 story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, about a woman whose physician husband has rented them an old mansion for the summer. The woman is recuperating from a bout of nervous depression, and her room’s windows have bars to prevent children from climbing through them. She slowly becomes obsessed by the pattern and color of the yellow wallpaper, and eventually she comes to believe there are women hiding behind the patterns of that decaying wallpaper ….

In both stories, there are some wonderfully potent chills to be had from watching where the mind takes us – to some very scary places indeed. And the Phantasmagoria production very effectively employ beautifully designed videos projected against the rear wall to help set the scene for us – from Berenice’s gray tomb to the eerie shadows of a woman hiding in that yellow wallpaper.

The troop recreates numerous short, dark tales during this 90-minute production, and they have some fun as well, particularly with their reenactment of H.G. Wells’ “The Story of the Inexperienced Ghost,” which allows them to revive one of their best trademarks: life-sized puppets, in this case of that wandering ghost.

“The Chains of Fire” is particularly strong on those terrors of the mind tales, and a reminder that the cast keeps getting better, with a sure sense of how to leave you feeling that dank chill running down your spine.

“Phantasmagoria VIII: The Chains of Fire” is being performed Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 8 p.m. and Mondays on Oct. 23 and Oct. 30 (at 9 p.m.), and a Halloween performance on Tuesday, Oct. 31. There is a special show each night at 7:30 p.m. for those who purchase VIP tickets.

The Lowndes Shakespeare Center is at 812 E. Rollins St. in Loch Haven Park.

For tickets, visit Orlandoplay.com.

Phantasmagoria will be returning in December for “A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas,” offering the Phantasmagoria take on the Charles Dickens classic, with performances in Orlando, Deland, Eustis and Sanford.

Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the terrifying, violent and gory book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..

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About Michael W Freeman

Michael W. Freeman is a veteran journalist, playwright and author. Born and raised in Fall River, Massachusetts, he has lived in Orlando since 2002. Michael has worked for some of Florida's largest newspapers, including The Orlando Sentinel. His original plays have draw strong audiences at the Orlando Fringe Festival. He is the author of the novels "Bloody Rabbit" and "Koby's New Home."
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